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How the Celebrity Photo Hack Affects the Rest of Us

It's our Internet, and if we don't take care of it, it won't take care of us.
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You never know when it could happen to you. This past weekend, the Internet should have been full of beach and BBQ photos, but instead it erupted into a heated debate over what looks like a highly organized online attack on female celebrities and their personal privacy. The media and social media discourse included a trove of posts shaming women for storing their images in the cloud, chastising men for propagating the images, and attacking companies for negligence. In reality, we're all victims.

In a nutshell, what we think happened is a hacker or group of hackers (more likely) identified a list of more than 100 women celebrities, figured out their iCloud account information, broke into those accounts, copied their personal photos, scoured the images for nudity, then posted those images on at least one anonymous image board, from which they were then disseminated to other sites, likely alongside an attempt to sell the photos in an online black market. In my 20 years working in digital media and cybersecurity, I've never seen anything quite like this, but I can't say I'm at all surprised that it happened.

There are a few different technical explanations that could be behind the incident. It is likely a case of data theft, copyright violation, invasion of privacy, and sexual harassment. The FBI is already on the case and will be taking it extremely seriously. Apple has initiated their own investigation and is also taking it seriously. Apple says the passwords were compromised. I expect we'll see some changes in how iCloud manages their security as a result. We're also seeing some fruitful discussion about how women are treated online, and this is extremely important.

What does this mean for the rest of us? First, security tools and enforcement online is not at the level where it should be. Second, a lot of sexism and harassment is allowed to go unchecked. That means that we, the users, need to advocate strongly for stronger security in the applications and sites we use online and for companies to adopt and enforce strict policies on sexism. Third, we need to become more educated in how to protect our own personal data online and how to interact with others as well. It's not always obvious what's happening with our data, often because companies want to make things easy for us as consumers, but it is becoming increasingly crucial for us to understand that we can't always trust technology providers to keep our information safe.

This is an issue not just concerning women, but concerning everyone -- including children. We now see cases often where teens coerce other teens into sharing naked photos of themselves via text message or email. Once an image is sent to another device, it's out in the world, no longer under our control. Because we face challenges every day like these, I wrote a book, The Digital Mystique: How the Culture of Connectivity Can Empower Our Lives -- Online and Off, just published this past week. The book deals with many of these difficult topics, like controlling your digital identity, determining what to share with lovers or friends via social media, and battling gender bias online.

So far, a lot of the coverage of the attack on celebrities has focused on terminology like 'breach,' 'leak,' 'scandal,' 'victim blaming,' 'sex crime,' 'pornography' and 'rape culture.' That is important because in the age of the Internet, many people still don't understand what the difference is online, and it's easy for it to become blurred in the murky waters of the Web. We see gender bias and sexism online every day. As more people venture online, it has become a larger problem. Chastising the women for their photos going viral online will not solve anything. We need to address the cultural expectations of the Internet and get companies on board in solving the issue. We also need to take steps each day to ensure our own accounts are secure, like many iCloud users will.

It won't be easy to tighten security, find hackers, abolish trolls, stamp out sexism and hate speech, and enforce laws online. As I wrote in my book, "there will always be ways for hackers to get into our accounts." Where there's a door, there's more than one way to enter it. But we need everyone -- from the celebrities we adore to the neighbor next-door -- to become a part of this discussion. It's our Internet, and if we don't take care of it, it won't take care of us.